Why Civil Projects Fail

Delivering major civil engineering projects is a challenge. By their nature, they are complex with many moving parts, variables and challenges all wrapped up in a goal of delivering a piece of infrastructure as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

In his career, Civil Project Partners’ Sean Savage has seen the good, the bad and the ugly and, in his latest blog, he looks at why civil project fail.

Why Civil Projects Fail

In my 25 years in the civil engineering industry, I have been fortunate to say that all the projects I project managed could be considered a success in terms of safety, quality, finances and timeliness.

However, I have worked in organisations where projects have gone wrong and been privy to lessons learned as the organisations’ leadership group assesses project outcomes.

An old CEO of mine once boiled it down to one word – scope.

At the pre-contracts time, understanding exactly what scope you are pricing and clearly explaining to the client what your tender offer intends on delivering is vital to project success.

Most projects seem to fail when the contractor and client have a misalignment of expectations, and much of this can come down to the client not having an adequate budget to deliver the scope of works that they require.

How can planning and risk management improve performance?

Much of my career has involved working with the client at an early point in the project delivery, be this an Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) for Design and Construct projects or Early Tender Involvement (ETI) projects that are construct only.

Having the ability to work with the client through the design process and clearly allocating risks from the concept phase right the way through to detailed design and then onto project delivery gives all parties shared understanding and buy-in throughout the process.

And through a shared understanding, project teams have greater clarity of purpose, schedule and activities, which significantly support good outcomes.

Lessons learned from 20+ years in the field

Setting expectations up early in the process and modelling behaviours from the top is essential in a successful organisation and successfully delivering a project. When you are project managing a large civil engineering project, you are working to bring out the best in a highly educated, technically focussed workforce.

More and more, a focus on soft management skills has become more critical than ever; treat others as you would wish to be treated. The old days of screaming, shouting and bouncing hard hats off the pavement are thankfully becoming part of construction folklore. Our industry now is much more diverse than it used to be, and that can only be a good thing.

As projects become more complex, we often become more complex in our thinking, but that can lead to a lack of simplicity and a muddled approach, so more often than not, it is better to KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid!

Larger mature organisations have a habit of continually adding complication to systems, not really focussing on the end-user. This is especially true in the safety area and appears largely due to the perception of “butt-covering”. In other words, to trying and cover off on every possible scenario so that liability and litigation reduced.

What I think we need to do is refocus on the end-user, that is, the person on the shovel or operating the machine. If we can get the end-user to identify and mitigate the key risks in every operation, they are undertaking and regularly check-in and encourage them. By taking this approach, I feel we will have better outcomes for everyone.

Small bits of information regularly instead of week-long inductions and telephone thick sized management plans sitting on the shelf that gathering dust. It has been a breath of fresh air, joining a relatively new organisation in Civil Project Partners and having systems that are fit for purpose and easily understood by all.


The old adage ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ is never truer than it is today. If a clear path is laid out and explained so that buy-in from all is garnered, it can be a key part of project success. If everyone is heading in the same direction with a shared goal in mind, when obstacles do crop up, it makes it so much easier to adjust your plan, to measure and persist in the process of continual improvement

A comparison I’d use is that of a footy team. The classic example is the Melbourn Storm, a team entirely focussed on a goal, where everyone knows the goal, their role in achieving it and what they must do to ensure success. That is why they are continually challenging for premierships, and if a player leaves or is injured, another player seamlessly takes their position and perfectly executes their role.

Cost control and management

Cost control and management are vital; if we don’t control our costs and track budgets making a job profitable becomes a real challenge.

In my experience, setting up a project at the start with cost codes that are meaningful and can be properly tracked is essential in managing a successful project.  Only by examining where the project is going well and where it is going poorly on a regular basis can a plan of action be put in place to rectify the process. Typically, this used to occur monthly; however, today, with some of the modern cost management systems, if all staff are diligent in updating costs and productivities, the Project Manager can have a dashboard set up and check key measurables daily.  The sooner an issue is highlighted, the sooner a plan can be implemented to solve the issue.

Expecting the unexpected

A project by its very nature is a unique operation that has never been performed before. This being the case, something out of the ordinary or unexpected will occur. Having robust systems behind you to manage that change process is the start of the process. Having project teams who are empowered to make decisions and communicate early is key to successful change management.  If staff feel supported by their managers and a culture of openness and honesty is fostered at the beginning of the process, managing the unexpected can be done in a much more productive manner.


In many walks of life, we allow complexity to overtake our thinking. Much of this can be avoided by keeping things simple, having a clear and understood plan and empowering people with information to make decisions quickly and effectively.

There is no doubt that as an industry, we have the skills and talent to ensure civil projects do not fail; it is a question of how we get projects right at the start to achieve success at the end.

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